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By (November 1, 2013) One Comment

Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet DoctrineStay,Illusion!

By Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster
Pantheon, 2013

One of my favorite used bookstore bargain bin finds is a 1960 anthology called Hamlet: Enter Critic. Edited by Edgar Whan and the euphoniously named Claire Sacks, the collection gathers eclectic snippets about Shakespeare’s best play by commenters from Goethe to Rebecca West, orders them alphabetically (thereby jumbling the chronology), provides a student-friendly appendix with bibliography and potted “study questions,” and otherwise gets out of the way.

The book is a greatest hits double-album of brilliant, frequently crankish, Hamlet obsession. Hazlitt and Coleridge are of course here, as are Dr. Johnson and J. Dover Wilson. Included is Oliver Goldsmith’s hilariously petulant hatchet job on the “to be or not to be” soliloquy (how, precisely, Goldsmith needles, could Hamlet call death an “undiscovered country, from whose bourne / no traveller returns” if only yesterday his own father returned from it, “piping hot from purgatory”?). There’s John Weiss, who attempts to resolve a tireless debate by arguing that Hamlet is never mad but merely an inveterate jokester and lover of irony. H.D.F. Kitto, pointing out that seven other people apart from the Danish prince die in the play, makes the hard sell that Hamlet is a “religious drama” in which the mass slaughter reflects, in the way of Sophocles’ Electra, the inscrutable will of Heaven.

But surely no essay surpasses that by E. Vale Blake for an 1880 issue of Popular Science Monthly under the title “The Impediment of Adipose.” Blake’s argument is built around Gertrude’s exclamation during the fatal duel with Laertes that Hamlet is “fat and scant of breath.” From this telltale clue he concludes that Hamlet’s tragic inaction is a result of poor physical fitness. Hamlet is “weighted down with a non-executive or lymphatic temperament”; he’s too chubby to avenge his father.

Blake’s master-class of pedantry (“The very expression that Hamlet uses … on parting with the Ghost, ‘While memory holds a seat in this distracted globe,’ is suggestive of a rotund and corpulent person”) is gloriously ludicrous … and then the Hamlet obsession kicks in, and you begin to wonder. What does Hamlet look like, after all? Since he doesn’t seem to do much after his father died, and sleeps poorly and suffers from depression, isn’t is probable he would have put on weight? And what does his sole reference to his father’s funeral consist of but a mention of the baked meats provided for the spread?

This is how Hamlet obsession works. So strange and inexhaustible is the play that there is no idea, however outré, however anachronistic, that it cannot seem to accommodate. Every critic seeks its interpretative skeleton key, the hidden approach by which to pluck out the heart of its mystery. Hamlet rewards such inquiries while handily redirecting them. T.S. Eliot wrote that critics tend to project on the character of Hamlet a “vicarious existence for their own artistic realization,” and the same goes for the play as a whole: you can’t explain it, but you can use it to help explain yourself.

In their action-packed book, Stay, Illusion!, co-authors Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster attempt to illuminate the play’s darker corners, and in the process provide useful glosses on some of the more rebarbative thinkers of the modern era. The pair, who cop to a “shared obsession” with the play, are forthright about their influences: “We are outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism,” they declare in their introduction, “and have chosen as a way into the play a series of outsider interpretations of Hamlet, notably those of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Lacan, and Nietzsche.”

TheTragicalHistoryofHamletCaveat emptor: if you are incurably allergic to those thinkers, you may want to stick to your battered paperback of A.C. Bradley. But that would be a pity, as Critchley (a philosophy professor) and Webster (a practicing psychoanalyst) bring an invigorating spirit of play to the out-there proceedings. Not many other Shakespeare critics would commend the Bard for his “admirable anal imagery,” or refer to Hamlet and Laertes’s relationship as a case of “frenmity,” or quote the “melancholic Danish heir to Hamlet,” filmmaker Lars von Trier. The authors’ reading of the play is notably bleak and despairing, yet their writing thrills in the sport of the analytic hunt.

Their Hamlet is a figure you might expect to find muttering to himself and tinkering with prescription drug cocktails within the pages of David Foster Wallace’s (aptly-titled) Infinite Jest. He is a kind of postmodern anti-hero, trapped by “the curse of self-consciousness” within a state of “infinite self-reflexivity.” His studies in philosophy at Wittenberg must have been extraordinarily foresighted, as he sees through the constructs of the Real to a paralyzing nothingness. Denmark is a prison without (quoting Walter Benjamin) “the faintest glimmer of any spiritualization”; its rottenness is merely a reminder of the way of all flesh: “Men without God are beasts in a putrefying world.”

What is it like to exist void of any meaning beyond the horror of gaping emptiness? With their customary agility and breadth of study, the authors find their analogy within the play’s dramatis personae:

[Walter] Benjamin writes, “The whole of nature is personalized, not so as to be made more [emphasis ours] inward, but, on the contrary—so as to be deprived of soul.” The appearance of the perturbed spirit of Hamlet’s father, trapped in a prison-house between mortal and immortal life, finds its resonance here. In the end, it is perhaps no different for Hamlet’s father than it is for Hamlet—they live, as noted by Stephen Greenblatt, in a medieval purgatory. Their melancholic tale is one that cannot but must be told, a story at the limits of what is human. If his father could “a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,” then this “eternal blazon must not be to ears of flesh and blood.” Hamlet also dies urging the ever-faithful Horatio not to die with him but to live to tell his tale.

The authors make an ingenious extrapolation from that last point. Hamlet ends with Horatio—like Moby-Dick’s Ishmael, the lone surviving witness to the story—promising to tell Fortinbras all of what has taken place. Critchley and Webster thus suggest that the play we have just seen is the enactment of Horatio’s embellished version of events. That makes The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark a Borgesian Möbius strip, a meta-drama in which Hamlet is oppressed by the apprehension that he is character bound within a fiction.

That is to say, Hamlet recognizes that he is himself merely a player, a stage performer. When, with a deep self-loathing, he accepts this realization and papers over his inaction with acting, he acquires temporary purpose and direction. He skillfully assumes an antic disposition to bewilder the numerous spies at Elsinore. He arranges the Mousetrap stunt with the itinerant theater troupe, demonstrating more genuine ebullience than at any other time in the drama. If reality is nothingness, the authors suggest, the falseness of the theater speaks truth, and it’s among avowed actors that Hamlet can most be himself.

But mummery can only offer momentary distraction from the stench of mortality. Critchley and Webster, drawing on Benjamin and Jacques Lacan, perceptively centralize the importance of mourning within the play. Foremost among the many things that Hamlet’s stewing inaction prevents him from doing is to properly mourn his father and find relief from grief’s anguish. Instead, his mourning fills him with a ceaseless thirst for some spectral salvation, like Tantalus before the receding lake. It is always with him, “an obsessive contemplation of death in life, and life after death.”

It is to Hegel (“the philosopher of the tragic”) that the authors turn to pinpoint the fatal consequence of perpetual mourning. It brings about, Hegel comments, an “inner disgust,” which destines Hamlet to hesitancy and flailing confusion:

It is our contention that what is caught sight of by Hegel is a Hamlet Doctrine that turns on the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insight into the truth induces a disgust with existence. He cannot, or will not, imagine anything more in the gap that opens up.

Hegel finds Hamlet’s disgust noble; it is a great soul who will look plainly, for even an instant, at the barren squalor of existence. The man who recognizes the fraudulence of his illusions is touchingly liberated, if only into the honorable downfall of tragedy.

HamletEnterCriticOn this point, however, the authors fascinatingly diverge from Hegel. Hamlet’s alienation is true and imponderable, but it renders him too passive to function as a classical tragic hero. A man who lacks all willpower can only react when prodded. The first victim of his estrangement is Ophelia, whose love he rejects, whose father he kills, and whose sanity he destroys: “Unlike Hamlet’s feigned antics, Ophelia’s psychosis is real; where Hamlet grieves, cannot act but simply acts out, Ophelia’s grief produces her acts of madness, and she follows her desire all the way to her death.” The authors portray Elsinore as a rat’s nest of liars and cynics, among whom Ophelia’s fatal flaw is sincerity. She is, they argue, the play’s true tragic hero, its pure virginal offering.

Though the authors disagree with their favored critics on a few crucial matters, they are nevertheless merrily sympathetic and faithful readers. But one of the few that they take to task, in a long diversion on psychoanalysis in the book’s middle section, is Sigmund Freud. This is because Freud is guilty of hubris, the cardinal sin in Hamlet studies. He treats Hamlet as a neurotic analysand whose dysfunctions can be riddled out, diagnosed, and treated. Yet as Critchley and Webster write, echoing Eliot, “the spying of a defect … always says more about the voyeur than the observed.”

With becoming humility, the authors instead explore a fascinating “causal reversal”:

It is not a question of putting Hamlet on the couch, which in any case would be weirdly anachronistic [perhaps a tongue-in-cheek qualification; much of this book’s charm derives from its weird anachronisms], but rather to hear something in Hamlet that allows us to put psychoanalysis on the couch and to the test. The mad trajectory of the play holds a message for the psychoanalyst, not vice versa. We do not need a theory of sexuality to understand the play; we need the play to tell us about sexuality. Give Hamlet a little more credit than this, dear psychoanalysts! Hamlet’s powerful reflexivity, like a patient’s, will always be ten steps ahead of any banal game of interpretation.

Stay, Illusion! argues that Hamlet contains archetypal examples of both bad and good psychoanalysts. The bad kind of headshrinker is Polonius, with his pop psychology and facile moralizing. Again the fault is arrogance—bromide-spouting Polonius sermonizes as though he himself had transcended human suffering. The “Truepenny psychoanalyst” is the person who does not pretend to hold a remedy for the patient’s torment, but simply holds a mirror before it, allowing him to view it at a distance from himself and so come to grips with it. The authors are developing Lacan’s idea that the way Hamlet can begin to reconstruct himself after his backslide into narcissism and melancholy is to positively recognize his desires, whatever they may be, by seeing the desires of some convincing double. The few occasions when Hamlet evinces any self-knowledge are when he is able to look upon his likeness—or the ideal of whom he would wish to be—in the forms of Horatio and Laertes:

Like the play within the play, we access something as intimate as desire in a moment outside of ourselves—in a flash of identification with the other’s desire. As Hamlet says later to Laertes, “to know a man well were to know himself.” This is also the very structure of theater, both the theatricality of drama and the mise-en-scène of psychoanalysis.

Hamlet’s best psychoanalyst, the authors contend, is the ghost. Shackled in purgatory and yearning, perhaps eternally, for the satisfaction of revenge, the ghost cannot fix Hamlet’s unhappiness—he can only provide him a startling mirror image of what he has become. By viewing the ghost, Hamlet may begin to grasp his tragic circumstances; by viewing the play, we may begin to grasp our own. That, Critchley and Webster write, is the most that psychoanalysis can hope to replicate:

The modesty of analysts is such that they only issue a call. This is what you are! It is not in their power to set any human defect, if there is such a thing, right. They can only help to bring you toward a gap in yourself, a place of radical loss in the abyss of desire.

There are undoubtedly some far-flung tangents in Stay, Illusion! But the book is surely right in suggesting that the durable strangeness of Hamlet is due to its refusal to round off its ending with any clear meaning. If the true tragic hero is Ophelia, who is dead by Act IV, then the play as a whole resists the traditional arc of tragedy. There is no catharsis in Hamlet’s death (or Gertrude’s, or Laertes’s, or even Claudius’s, which should have broken the spell of Hamlet’s irresolution, but somehow does not). As we have seen, the play ends by returning to the start, as Horatio is on the cusp of narrating everything that has just happened. It’s a closed circle, its own contained universe of meaning, and once in it, there seems no way to get out; it engulfs you.

Perhaps that essential unknowability is why the most vivid protagonist of Stay, Illusion! is not a character from the play (and not Shakespeare, who is if anything even harder to fathom) but Friedrich Nietzsche, the writer who, through sheer manic intensity, seized on Hamlet’s despair and disgust and transformed it into an exuberant aesthetic. Nietzsche is the originator of the Hamlet Doctrine that the authors reference in their subtitle, which simply proclaims that “knowledge kills action, and to action there has to belong illusion.” He is, to the authors, Hamlet incarnated upon the precipice of godless modernity. He rants, he cavorts to Dionysian excess, he plays the fool. “Can he be serious?” Critchley and Webster ask while examining the farcical egomania of Ecce Homo. “Perhaps the only thing to do when one has looked into the abyss of suffering is to become a buffoon. We all fear the truth.”

Hamlet played as a half-crazed Nietzsche, or perhaps as an aspiring Ubermensch, is not a performance I have ever seen, or considered before reading Stay, Illusion! In fact, one of the things I was regularly reminded of while reading this antic, thought-provoking study was how few available productions of Hamlet exist in relation to how many interpretations of it there are from critics. Yet written analysis, however trenchant, is deprived of much of its latent power if it doesn’t inform performance. The play’s multiplicity demands not only new readings but new stagings.

So it is bittersweet to find on Youtube a clip of Orson Welles and Peter O’Toole discussing the play and their respective performances (Welles claims that the ghost is the most difficult role to act, a wonderful bit of crackpottery to quicken the pulse of any Hamlet obsessive). Why do today’s leads seem to fear the part? Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Ryan Gosling have been playing Hamlet-esque characters throughout their careers, but won’t risk the real McCoy? Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t dream of competing with Burton and Olivier? Or what about a heavyset star, to dramatize the impediment of adipose? Hamlet critics are holding up their end of the bargain. Now we need some performers to convert thought to action and give us a show.

Sam Sacks writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal and is a founding editor at Open Letters.